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31° Palermo Ladies Open: The New “Normal” Life on Tour

As the first official tournament back on the main circuit after the COVID-19 shutdown and a resulting five-month break on Tour, there have been way more eyes turned towards the small WTA-International event in Palermo than in previous years. Providing a thrill of anticipation, many fans, as well as some players, have been desperately waiting for the main tour to officially resume after its enforced break. However, in the run-up to the tournament in Palermo, there were not only positive voices, but also some unsettled detractors.

With 250,000 confirmed cases, of which more than 35,000 people died (as of August 9, 2020), Italy ranks fourth in the list of most COVID-19 infections in Europe just behind the United Kingdom, Spain and Russia. Just recently, the statistical office “Istat” published a study which stated that almost 1.5 million people in Italy allegedly developed antibodies against the virus. “That is six times as many [people] as officially registered,” commented Istat director Laura Sabbadini. Overall, that corresponds to 2.5 percent of the population.

Just looking at the total numbers, however, does not do justice to the country, the tournament and especially those responsible. In the last few months, there have been a lot of commendable advances that increasingly justify a tournament in Italy, preferably Sicily, particularly as a location in Europe. Sicily has a significantly lower infection and transmission rate compared to most of the countries in Europe. Furthermore, the death rate in Sicily is only a fractional amount of the numbers recorded in central and northern European countries.

Nevertheless, the numbers of confirmed infected people have slightly increased again after previously settling down for weeks and months. The professional declaration for this is still pending.

Simona and Other Top Seeds Withdraw

As early as before the start of the tournament, those in charge of the Palermo Ladies Open suffered a big setback. World No. 2, Simona Halep, who was undoubtedly the biggest name in the field for the 31st edition of the tournament in Palermo, decided against traveling to Italy and participating in the competition.

"Given the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Romania and my anxieties around international air travel at this time, I have made the tough decision to withdraw from Palermo. I want to thank the tournament director and the Italian ministry of health for all efforts on my behalf,” she posted on Twitter.

Immediately before Halep’s official cancellation, there have already been massive doubts whether the Roland Garros champion from 2018 was allowed to travel to Italy without having to quarantine prior to the tournament, as the Italian health minister announced that due to rising COVID-19 cases in Bulgaria and Romania, people from these countries would be forced to undergo a two-week quarantine.

As reported later, the measures should not apply to professional athletes with crammed schedules. Considering the new knowledge, the tournament organizers were not too happy about Halep’s withdrawal decision after putting large effort into receiving a special exception for her.

“We found out with great bitterness the decision of world number 2 to cancel her participation to the 31st Palermo Ladies Open... Yesterday we were optimistic, and we had informed Halep’s staff about the fact that professional players are not obliged to quarantine. Regional assessor of Health Ruggero Razza … had directly sent to Halep an official communication explaining how the Ordinance of the Ministry of Health was not to be applied to workers, therefore neither to professional tennis players. Nevertheless, Halep’s staff only communicated us the final decision, frustrating all our efforts. We are embittered and profoundly disappointed.”

In addition to Simona Halep, British Number 1 Johanna Konta as well as former 2017 French Open Champion Jelena Ostapenko, also decided against a participation in Palermo. World No. 15 Konta, however, claimed that she wanted to prepare for the upcoming US Open and therefore canceled her trips to clay tournaments as it did not fit into her schedule.

Bubble? What "Bubble"

Due to insufficient resources and financial aid availability, tournament director Oliveiro Palma announced earlier that there would not be a strict bubble in Palermo. It was nowhere near feasible to book the whole hotel exclusively for the players on-site.

Despite this conflict, the safety of the athletes naturally had the highest priority. The organizers did not want to make heavy mistakes, such as those that happened a few months ago during the Adria Tour, where the simplest of Covid-19 measures have not been observed.

"I see the Adria Tour as a failure," said tournament director Palma. "It showed a lack of respect to all the sacrifices many people had done to safeguard everybody’s health." In order to do justice to the high priority regarding the health of the players, a so-called “anti-Covid Team,” which was led by Antonio Cascio, a professor of infectious diseases at the university of Palermo, was organized.

“He [Antonio Cascio] will be helped by professor Francesco Vitale, who will analyze the tests in the university’s laboratory. The tests will be carried out on site in the Sicilian government’s Health Service camper. Basically, we will have the best expert that Sicily, a place that managed the pandemic with great success, can provide,” described Palma heading into the event.

Other strict safety measures, such as procuring your own towel during a match – which should be enforced even without a global pandemic – and constant hygiene checks on the training grounds, have been introduced as well. Despite all the strict precautions, players at the tournament were still allowed to leave the hotel and go on a city trip.

“They will all stay at the same hotel, where the strictest safety measures are respected. If they use all the due precautions, they might also have a tour of the city if they wish to, since the virus is barely circulating here. But it’s up to them,” Palma declared. 24-year-old Donna Vekic, who is ranked on #24 in the singles ranking and entered the main draw as the No. 6 seed, criticized this decision in advance to the event, but in the same breath confirmed that her and many other players on-site had taken advantage of the personal liberty. “Here they talk about us being in a bubble but it’s not at all. I don’t want to pretend that I’m locked in the room the whole day when I’m not. I went to dinner in the city...I’m not locked in the room and 90% of the players aren’t.

Vekic enjoyed popularity from Spaniard Georgina Garcia Perez, who only competed in doubles this week and eventually lost in the quarter-finals with her compatriot Sara Sorribes Tormo. “The WTA tells you that you must not leave the hotel... The first thing I saw is people non stop coming in and out. Nobody says anything, the security is zero, no one is controlling us," she stated.

The 28-year-old Spaniard, however, ultimately also had some good words left for the organizers shortly before leaving Palermo, saying in a post on social media: “Thank you @WTA @LadiesOpenPA for all the effort to put this event together. As a player, I am thankful to be competing in these difficult times and happy for the opportunity.”